Review by Ken Burke The Great Beauty
You can’t help noting similarities to Fellini’s classic La Dolce Vita, but this new look at upper-class Roman decadence holds its own as a magnificent visual experience.
The Last Days on Mars
This won’t be remembered as a sci-fi classic but it does present a compelling, disturbing look at astronauts who find more than they intended on the Red Planet.
Go for Sisters
Two women, close in high school but drifted to opposite lives as parole officer and ex-con-client, face a crisis involving the worst elements of Mexican drug gangs.
[Take care, curious readers, for plot spoilers gallop rampantly throughout the Two Guys’ brilliantly insightful reviews. This is how we write, so as to explore what must be said as art transcends commerce (although if anyone wants to pay us for doing this ...); therefore, be warned, beware, and read on when ready to be transported to—well, wherever we end up.
We also encourage you to check your tastes against ours with the summary of Two Guys reviews, which we update with each new posting. But please be aware that the links we recommend in our reviews may have been removed or modified without our knowledge. Other overall notations for this blog may be found at our Two Guys in the Dark homepage. Now, onward to illumination; you may want to protect your eyes from the brilliance.]
|Two Guys film critic Ken Burke with|
editorial assistants Annie and Inky
This week marks a special time for the Two Guys in the Dark because our December 12, 2013 posting comes on the second-year-anniversary of our first one, way back in 2011. During that time (counting this week) we’ve put up 111 postings, which have included 216 reviews (a few, but not many as you may well know, briefer than others) of various high-minded-films and mass-market-movies (as noted above, we invite you to the summary page of our exquisite analyses). Given that this ongoing output over the last 2 years is a bit of a landmark, for both Pat (who’s still waiting for the right combination of enough down time from his weekly assignment of San Francisco Bay Area theatre reviews and the proper cinematic inspiration) and myself, I’ve (as the Chief Operating Officer of this enterprise—along with just about any other title you’d like to suggest, except for Chief Financial Officer, given that we have no income and won’t due to Google’s “family-friendly-policies” that automatically exclude Two Guys in the Dark from any advertising revenue for various robot-driven-reasons that mostly come down to occasional language associated with R-rated films [hard to effectively describe what’s going on with most of them without some explicit verbiage] and no in-hand-copyright-clearance for the various photos and YouTube videos that we use each week [despite those photos existing only for the same promotional purposes that we’re indulging in and YouTube being owned by Google who should be doing their own copyright policing—regardless of the Copyright Law’s exclusions for journalistic, educational, scientific, and critical usage, but let’s not burden our overlords with legal realities]) decided to take a slightly different approach to our clustered subject matter this week.
The focus here will be on some films that are largely—although not exclusively—associated with the marvelous nationwide Landmark Theatre chain (which, as usual, hasn’t remunerated us in any matter to plug their existence nor their screenings), not only because I’ve spent a lot of time in those movie houses over the couple of decades that I’ve been located in the SF area but also because opportunities have opened up for me in the last week to see a couple of upcoming Landmark releases (at least in my northern CA territory; I understand that they’re already active in other markets around the country) via critics’ and online screenings, so I’m in the unique position (for me) of not only being able to discuss something that’s been out for awhile—Paolo Sorrentino‘s The Great Beauty—but also a couple set to open this week in my area—Ruairí‘s Robinson’s The Last Days on Mars—and then the weekend after that, December 20th—John Sayles’ Go for Sisters; consequently, for once I’ll be able to do a past/present/future combo review, all based on films actively connected to the marvelous independent-cinema-oriented Landmark chain—and, in the case of these 3,displaying that not-what-you-might-expect-from-Hollywood-genre-standards-no-matter-how-well-crafed-they-may-be-spirit—but still with my usual Spoiler Alert considerations, so navigate carefully through the following paragraphs because you may want to save the significant plot revelations for your own later viewing, without any interference from my all-knowing comments. With those considerations in mind, let’s move on to the actual reviews, as we push this web-woven-cinematic-analysis-vehicle into its 3rd year.
Just because it’s been out for a couple of weeks (here in the San Francisco region, likely longer in some other markets, set to open in a few others come this Friday—December 13, 2013—so for some of you folks this may be a preview review after all), we’ll start with our past focus, The Great Beauty, which is also the champion of the group, not just in my opinion but also with the judges of the recently-concluded European Film Academy’s annual awards ceremony in Berlin where it was honored for Best Film, Best European Director, Best Actor (Toni Servillo), and Best Editor (Crisiano Travaglioli)—a competition well-respected on that continent although not noticed as much by cinephiles in the U.S. and U.K. where the English-language-Hollywood-and-Hollywood-influenced-product tends to dominate. This is Italy’s contender for Oscar’s Best Foreign Language Film (which is hard for me to predict even the nominees for, given that I haven’t seen very many of the dozens of contenders nor can I trust that the recent rule change [which allows all Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences members to vote for this category rather than having to prove they watched all of the finalists by signing in at special screenings] will necessarily produce the best nominees) and certainly a strong favorite of mine for that category given its poetic contemplations, its inferential plot implications (rather than the usual cause-and-effect-narrative), its gorgeous cinematography, and its obvious evocations of Fellini in general and his La Dolce Vita (1960) in particular. The situation of the film (a better term than “plot,” because events don’t always unfold in a linear fashion but often resonate off of each other, leaving us at times needing to decipher actions that are only spoken of rather than shown) is that jaded author-turned-journalist-but-mainly-society-king, Jep Gambardella (Servillo—who was compared in appearance by a friend of mine to U.S. Vice President Joe Biden but I see him more as an older version of current wrestling superstar Alberto Del Rio [real name Alberto Rodriquez but transformed by WWE storymakers]; you can compare his mug to Servillo's and decide for yourself, but, just to be fair, here are some shots of Joe Biden for consideration as well), upon turning 65 begins to take stock of his largely-wasted-life, which is filled with fame, endless parties including ones at his own upper-story apartment overlooking the Colosseum, upper-crust friends who earn his contempt more than his respect, and a growing, gnawing sense that he’s traded his command of society’s paparazzi-fodder for anything resembling satisfaction with his long years in the Eternal City (he’s a man who as a youth most appreciated “the smell of old people’s homes” rather than his friends' desires for sex so we know he was always destined for the finer things of life—as his meticulous wardrobe demonstrates—even though he’s failed to connect them to any sense of mature accomplishment). Much of what occupies The Great Beauty (La grande bellezza) is Jep’s wanderings about the architectural and artistic wonders of Rome, trying to get a sense of what it all means to him, if anything actually does, while constantly warding off the requests for another novel to follow his youthful success with The Human Apparatus so many decades ago before he joined the likes of the Kardashian clan by being famous simply for being famous.
One perk (among many in his life) that his notoriety gives him, though, is access to all of the celebrated people in and around Rome, including a trendy performance artist, Talia Concept (Anita Kravos; we see executing one of her “works”—where an audience gathers at an ancient outdoor setting to see her nude [except for a thin scarf around her face and hair], her crotch painted red with a tiny hammer-and-cycle-insignia, and her “performance” where she simply rushes into a stone wall which knocks her down upon her back with a bleeding forehead), whom Jep humiliates during their post-performance interview by insisting that she explain what sort of “vibrations” that she claims she senses in her “understanding” of the world (she can’t do so, angrily ending their conversation), along with a Mother Teresa-like nun, Sister Maria (Giusi Merli), already referred to as The Saint, even though the hand- (and ass-) kissing Cardinal Bellucci (Roberto Herlitzka) is quick to remind everyone that no one alive is yet considered a saint by Catholic Church protocol (but mostly he prefers to regale guests at a dinner in the woman’s honor with his various recipes while she sits silently except to note that she won’t be partaking of the dinner because she eats only roots—“to get to the root of things”) although she’s a lot closer than any of the rest of them, caring only about her missionary work in Africa, her distain for any material comforts (she sleeps that night on the floor of Jep’s lavish dwelling), and her willingness to sacrifice her 104-year-old-body in her ongoing spiritual quest, such as climbing the many stone steps of the Scala Sancta (Holy Stairs) on her knees (legend has it that these were the stairs trod by Jesus on his way to his audience with Pontius Pilate, later brought to Rome by St. Helena; those who ascend them in this painful, humble manner are to be granted a plenary indulgence [forgiveness of the accumulated punishment for forgiven sins, essentially a “Get Out of Jail Free” card that allows you to skip Purgatory and go straight to Heaven, says your very-lapsed-Catholic film critic). Jep also has encounters with soul-dead-stripper Ramona (Sabrina Ferilli) who’s a good companion on his quest for a meaningful life but a self-admitted-flop in bed with Jep; his sycophantic-playwright-friend, Romano (Carlo Verdone), who works Jep furiously for help in getting a venue for his unappreciated, self-indulgent theatre, then leaves Rome in a melancholy state even after his latest work finally brings him some recognition; Communist-author-and-self-promoting Stefania (Galatea Ranzi) who opens herself up for a vicious attack by Jep when she asks for an honest appraisal of herself (yet later in the film they’re dancing politely at a wedding); and, most importantly, Alfredo (Luciano Virgillo), the widowered-husband of Jep’s long-lost-first-love, Elisa (Anna Luisa Capasa), who comes with the devastating news that she’s dead, lost to both of them just as the diary in which she revealed that Jep was the only one she truly cared for is lost to him because the distraught spouse has destroyed it. In the midst of all of this commentary on the superficiality of the modern upper-class (punctuated with party scenes that demonstrate their endless intransigence), however, we’re also treated to superb scenes of Rome’s glorious cultural heritage and the exhilarating use of a variety of sacred and secular music in the mesmerizing soundtrack, so that we journey along with Jep through his memories (symbolized at times by the appearance of the Mediterranean Sea on his bedroom ceiling—taking him back to passionate memories of Elisa—which prove invisible to not-really-in-tune-with-him-Ramona, even though she claims to see it), his present luxurious landscape, and his empty sense of accomplishment in a manner that needs to be experienced by you firsthand rather than read about in a poor attempt of translating an audiovisual symphony into a verbal scoring sheet.
As noted above, I’ll be more emphatic with Spoiler Alert reminders this week than most because I’m writing about films that many of you haven’t even had an opportunity to see yet, although I still need to discuss their full contents for clarity of my explorations. Here’s your first one, regarding The Great Beauty. Please proceed at your own risk or jump down to the start of my comments about The Last Days on Mars. In the case of The Great Beauty the spoiler revelations are about a sweeping cycle of death that enters Jep’s life to enhance the grief he’s already feeling about Elisa, even though we don’t see the actual demise of any of them, save for the certainty that the son of one of Jep’s friends is bringing on his own end by driving fast at night with his eyes closed straight toward the screen. Ramona also dies somehow (maybe the problem of not knowing the particulars is mine for looking down so frequently trying to take notes, thereby missing a lot of the subtitles necessary to decode the melodic Italian language that sounded so nice but told me nothing—yet I felt the notes were vital if I were ever going to remember anything about this elusive visionary encounter later on—but based on after-viewing-conversations with keen-eyed companions I don’t think anyone caught what happened to her; still, I don’t think this is a fault of Sorrentino’s but instead an intention to keep reminding us that life—and its most extreme aspect, its absence—isn’t always available for understanding but at best for response and acceptance, no matter what the causes of the outcomes), which we learn from Jep’s condolences to her grieving father. Another unexplained death is of the young girl artist pictured in the image above (I didn’t catch her name; apparently neither did anyone else I’ve found who’s written about this film, so I guess it doesn’t matter that much) whose sad funeral is shown but with no clarification to us about how it came to be. Certainly she may have simply been overwhelmed by her own sorrow, as she had the odd burden of being a well-appreciated, well-compensated painter who achieved her signature works by throwing buckets of pigment at a large canvas, then smearing the paint around with her hands while crying with some unexplained pain until the final result was a gorgeous combination of hues, texture, and swirling movement (perhaps even more disturbing is the other painter at one of the lavish parties who creates outlines of his subjects by throwing knives at them, releasing splatters of paint that constitute his famed “portraits”). Yet, fame and ability to manifest an artistic impulse (the latter eluding Jep, leading to his quiet sense of despair) weren’t enough to bring stability to her short life, implying a mystery of circumstance and result, with substance as hard to grasp as the constant trails of cigarette smoke that surround Jep, just as a magician mystifies him late in the story by seeming to make a giraffe disappear from an open courtyard, explaining that “it’s all just a trick” (although one whose procedure remains hidden from us). Ultimately, this phrase provides Jep with the insight he needs to conclude his personal quest by liberating himself from the preoccupations of his past (as does Guido [Marcello Mastroianni] in Fellini’s 8 ½ ), resolving to write his second novel, and understanding that all of our goals may be incomprehensible one to the other in our social circles but they remain as liberation for each of us personally (as shown in this short clip—with some very low-key imagery—from the film’s end at http://www.youtube.com/ watch?v=UBpZZtkf4ZA [apologies to non-Italian-speakers among us, but no subtitles here] when the nun reaches the top of her grueling staircase climb, just as Jep embraces and transcends his obsession with his never-realized-life with Elisa, not even knowing why they parted).
There’s a lot that we’ll never know either about the specifics of The Great Beauty, but that doesn’t keep the film from being a masterful experience in all of its captivated grandeur. It seems to recycle Fellini (intentional or not) just a bit too much for me to go any higher than my normal top of 4 of 5 stars (at various times on Jep’s vista-rich balcony we find a blue-haired-dwarf [who turns out to be Jep’s editor, Dadina [Giovanna Vignola] and a flock of migrating flamingos; Jep even makes reference to a “sea monster” [there’s an unexplained one in La Dolce Vita] he wants to show Ramona, but here he’s talking about the infamous wrecked-cruise-ship Costa Concordia); however, that minor quibble aside, I find The Great Beauty to be exactly that and encourage you to seek it out or at least see it on the largest video screen you can manage if you have to view it later on DVD. It’s a stunning encounter with the best (and most perplexing) that life and cinema have to offer. I’ll conclude these comments with my usual recommended musical metaphor, this time a song as hauntingly ethereal as the film I’m linking it to, Paul Simon’s “For Emily, Whenever I May Find Her” (from the 1966 Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme album) as performed by Art Garfunkel at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sou_8VgLjOY with some added visuals; however if you’d prefer just a live performance focused on Art’s melodious voice and Paul's spectacular guitar-playing here’s that at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=om7aUNZQVpQ.
There’s nothing melodious about The Last Days on Mars, though (just as the appropriate size for the above image sadly isn't supported by its supplied pixel count), my choice for a present focus of a film about to open at my local Landmarks (and already in progress at some others), except for the musical metaphor which I’ll go ahead and provide, the probably-too-obvious-but-still-relevant “Rocket Man (I Think It’s Going to Be a Long, Long Time)” at http://www.youtube.com/ watch?v=hzZJh96ZFbA (from Elton John’s 1972 album Honky Château), with its declaration that “Mars ain’t the kind of place to raise your kids, In fact it’s cold as hell, And there’s no one there to raise them if you did,” although, more importantly as we’ll see, is “Rocket man, burning out his fuse up here alone.” In this case, the “rocket man” would be Vincent Campbell (Liev Schreiber), a gruff-but-dedicated-member of a group of astronauts who’ve spent 6 lonely months at the Tantalus Base on the Red Planet but are a mere 19 hours away from leaving, although that intention is thwarted by events they could never have dreamed of. (That is, unless they’d gotten busy with their laptop-video-editing-software to create a mash-up of 2 outer-space sci-fi classics, The Andromeda Strain [Robert Wise, 1971; which I classify with the outer-space category of this genre (as opposed to futuristic, such as The Hunger Games films which are more about our world gone rotten because of human failings with authoritarianism and/or runaway technology) because it can involve something unexpected that we either encounter out there or that confounds us by coming here] and Alien [Ridley Scott, 1979], both of which The Last Days on Mars has echoes of, although this consistently red-toned film will not likely be remembered in the same breath as those predecessors [it also has touches of the ending-lab-scenes in World War Z (Marc Forster; review in our June 29, 2013 posting), but let’s not wander off into the horror genre any more than we have to here—although if you’d like to read in depth on their differences I’ll refer you to Bruce Kawin’s article, “Children of the Light,” at http://www.english2.mnsu.edu/casella/teaching/bruce_kawin-childrenofthelight.pdf (in various editions of the Film Genre Reader, edited by Barry K. Grant), with this posted pdf file complete with margin notes looking like it might have been used by someone who took my Film in American Society class (and, I’ll say that while I agree with most of Kawin’s premises I don’t think that he acknowledges enough the religious connections to horror movies, so I disagree [“emphatically,” to use his term] when he says Alien and The Thing from Another World [Christian Nyby, Howard Hawks, 1951] are in the horror category, but otherwise he gives you great food for thought here)]). If the collective consciousness of the slayer crew at Rotten Tomatoes (with a 21% positive average for The Last Days on Mars) and the slightly-more-humane one at Metacritic (47%) had their way you probably wouldn’t have the chance to sample this rendition of crisis in the wilderness at all. Nevertheless, as has sometimes been the case this year (most notoriously with The Lone Ranger, a raucous, energetic bit of fun for me to which I gave a high-achieving 4 of 5 stars when just about everyone else was hoping to bury it after collecting its silver bullets; review in our July 11, 2013 if you care to explore my lack of sanity), I’m going to go considerably higher with my evaluation of this current film, 3 of 5 stars (60%) because while there’s nothing all that original or superb about The Last Days of Mars it is tightly-constructed, effectively-acted, and appropriately-tension-ridden with an even greater quandary for its protagonists to overcome than the seems-doomed-to-non-atmospheric-suffocation-fate fought so valiantly against by just the single protagonist, Dr. Ryan (Sandra Bullock), in Gravity (Alfonso Cuarón; review in our October 9, 2013 posting)—although I have to give the wide edge of success as an overall cinematic experience to the latter, especially if you can view it in an IMAX format, where deep space becomes a natural perception, not just a descriptive phrase.
What you can’t view unless you want another dose of Plot Spoilers is the rest of this review, so if you want to protect your sense of virgin-viewer-integrity then please skip down to the opening comments on Go for Sisters. OK, for those of you still in attendance let’s cut to the chase here and acknowledge that the crisis in The Last Days on Mars comes about because just before the return to the various transports that will at last bring this tension-ridden-cabin-fever-even-in-wide-open-spaces-crew back to Earth (but even that return trip has negative overtones, as Campbell likens a spaceship to a coffin), the most overly-curious-one, scientist Marko Petrovic (Goran Kostić), goes back out into the Martian desert one last time to further explore his hope that he may have previously found traces of life on the planet. (You can just never count on those damn scientists to stop making trouble, a theme you can explore in the aforementioned The Thing from Another World where the eggheads want to communicate with the killer-vegetable-life-form [you just have to see it; I can’t explain it any further] that’s crash-landed in a remote Arctic location while the clear-thinking-military-men know that the only good alien is a dead one—curiously enough, John Carpenter remade this movie  but reversed the roles of whom we’re encouraged to revere in dealing with the threat to our isolated team’s safety, also making the alien creature even more dangerous by turning it into a shape-shifter that could mimic the physical appearance of a team member that it had clandestinely killed). As you might expect, what Petrovic finds upon his return to the previous site is not long-dead-evidence of Earth-like conditions (similar to what our actual NASA Mars Curiosity Exploration Rover has recently found regarding evidence of ancient water) on our celestial neighbor but instead a living bacteria which soon infects him and crew member Lauren Dalby (Yusra Warsama). Soon enough they’ve become grotesque creatures with their skin seemingly burned almost to the bone and a maniacal fierceness that soon leads to other crew members either being killed by these monsters, dying and turning into monsters themselves (but, again regarding Kawin’s arguments, just because these are brutal creatures doesn’t necessarily turn this into a horror film for me because all sorts of vicious alien life forms could exist—as the outer-space wing of this genre has been preaching for decades, although their appearance and actions akin to zombies does seem to move us into at least hybrid-genre territory), killing the monstrosities when they can, or escaping for self-protection in hopes of making contact with the Aurora lander scheduled to get them off-planet (all the while with more red in the images, more active cutting between shots, and howling sandstorms to further their difficulties). A few brief allegiances are formed by Campbell as circumstances evolve, but soon enough it comes down to just him and Robert Irwin (Johnny Harris), who each reach the Aurora vehicle separately but find the crew has been killed by some of the surviving vicious killers that have been transformed by the deadly Martian bacteria. Irwin’s infected as well but is determined to get back to Earth in hopes of finding some sort of cure; Campbell knows that Irwin will never last that long before becoming a monster himself or, even worse, starting an infection chain that will quickly destroy human life on Earth in a manner than even Brad Pitt can’t control.
Faced with no other choice, Campbell kills Irwin, jettisons the body into deep space, and radios back to mission control that he doesn’t have enough fuel to rendezvous with the Earth-bound shuttle but could possibly survive on his supplies if a rescue party could come after him. However, he also warns them that he too might be infected so contact with him might not be to anyone’s benefit, therefore he’s willing to die alone out there. Just to keep us guessing as to whether we’re poised to suffer another deadly-creature-from-outer-space-invasion if the possible rescuers make a mistake in carrying Campbell back home (a scenario hinted at with the concluding crash onto Earth of the transport in Alien: Resurrection [Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 1997], providing us with not only the possibility of yet another sequel but also the long-dreaded-consequence of those ghastly beings ever having been found in the first place as newly-hatched-chomper-lizards [You got a better name for them?] are on board and might be able to make it onto our planet after all, given how rarely anything ever seems to go right for the humans in the Alien series), The Last Days on Mars ends at this point, leaving us in a state of suspended animation which will likely—intentionally—never be resolved where this story is concerned.
While The Last Days on Mars feels familiar enough, with its resemblances to other sci-fi concepts of its type further restricted by its lack of anything to noticeably set it apart from those other inspirations, it’s still enjoyable to watch as disaster builds on a believably-human-scale in a dirt-based-environment that looks completely appropriate for this story (have a look for yourself in the second video link suggested far below for this film, in which you see its actual opening minutes), no miraculous rescues are available for the crew members that Campbell tries to build alliances with, and the acting is very solid throughout the cast, leaving an effective impact of what could easily happen as hapless humans roam the solar system (or maybe beyond, some long day into the future), with no idea what may await them, even if it’s just a simple organism that could completely transform our physiology, leading to rampant disaster as infections spread rapidly with no antidote understood, let alone available. Further, the ending is a clever bit of business as far as I’m concerned, leaving us hanging between the likely desire of Campbell’s control team to bring him home after the horrors that he’s endured (a plot point that may resonate with audiences far-too-familiar with the seemingly-endless-years of U.S. involvement in wars in the Middle East, where return not just to base but stateside has become the goal of thousands of families over the last dozen years) and their concern—emphasized by him as well—that he may be too contaminated to even approach, so that while leaving him stranded in the void above Mars may be inhumane on the personal level it’s the only option for our species as a whole. This is not silly sci-fi stuff from years past but a real existential quandary that could easily lead to serious discussions after a screening rather than a quick exit to the nearest bar to check the night’s easily-replaceable-basketball-game-scores, already in progress even as we speak (Is their season ever over?). That doesn’t seem to be the conclusion reached by the vast majority of those who’ve preceded me on the critics’ path where The Last Days on Mars is concerned, nor have I had the time to fully read many of their accounts, although of what I have seen the words “dull,” “contrivances,” “banality,” “tiresome,” and “unoriginal” do seem to set the tone on a consistent basis, although Rotten Tomatoes Top Critic Kenneth Turan (of the Los Angeles Times) calls it “lean, muscular and on the money,” just as fellow Top Critic Peter Howell (Toronto Star) agrees with me that “The acting is convincing across the board, especially Schreiber’s,” so you’ll just have to decide for yourself whether to take a chance on this one or not; I’ll say that it’s nothing you’d curse yourself for missing, but unless you just don’t want to be exposed to a story where almost everyone dies (but that would rule out both Alien and Hamlet, wouldn’t it, so you also have to be careful about what categorical decisions you make) I think you’d find The Last Days on Mars to be well-constructed, thought-provoking in its finale, and a worthwhile investment of your time at the cinema as long as you’re in the mood for something that won’t give you the uplift of a Gravity, 12 Years a Slave (Steve McQueen; review in our November 14, 2013 posting), Captain Phillips (Paul Greengrass; review in our October 16, 2013 posting), or All Is Lost (J.C. Chandor; review in our November 7, 2013) salvation scenario—and I’m still not sure about that last one, as to whether Redford’s unnamed character really was saved at the last minute or whether that was a final, hopeful, desperate hallucination. The Last Days on Mars carries that kind of intriguing narrative uncertainty as well, thereby possibly making it the thinking-man’s-zombie-movie, if that’s not too much of an oxymoron for you (if so, you should probably just forget about this one and tune into the next episode of AMC TV‘s The Walking Dead instead).
I’d hope that you wouldn’t be put off by any aspect of Go for Sisters—my future focus film for the week as it rolls out into new markets beyond its limited first introductions—because the twin concepts of a mother’s undying love for her son (even a son stupidly involved in drug dealing that’s led to him being kidnapped by Mexican gangsters) and the ability of old friends to reconnect (even when one of them is an addict ex-con and the other is her new parole officer) is something that I would hope any of us could relate to and support, even if we never encounter any aspect of the events that our protagonists face in this tense drama about determination, salvation, and creative thinking even when the odds are horribly against you. Specifically, what we have here is Bernice (LisaGay Hamilton), hardworking L.A. law-enforcement officer whose son, Rodney (McKinley Belcher III), is mixed up with dangerous lowlifes but resists Mom’s attempt to keep him straight (she barely knows where he lives, has no phone number for him); fortuitously, she inherits an old high-school friend, Fontayne (Yolanda Ross), as a new client, 20 years removed from their former lives but fresh out of the joint, determined to be what Bernice is hoping for in Rodney as she works as a short-order cook, pushes away the advances of her former pusher, and still sees the years-ago-value of connection with Bernice, even as they now represent possibly-opposing-sides of the law. Back in the day they were close enough that Bernice said they could mistakenly “go for sisters” to anyone who recognized their constant connection, but that’s a linkage that takes some time to re-establish as Bernice increasingly crosses the line regarding procedure, tactics, and fundamental legality in finding Rodney, forcing Fontayne to weigh out re-establishing trust for her old friend so that she’s not burned if their foray into Mexico goes bad, putting her in ever worse jeopardy than Bernice faces. All Bernice knows early on in this film is that a drug-dealing-associate of Rodney’s has been murdered, Rodney is wanted for questioning, and her old-enough-to-be-on-his-own-but-still-a-kid-in-his-mother’s-eyes-son is nowhere to be found. Quickly, Bernice realizes that despite her knowledge of the criminal world that she’s responsible for bringing some order to (at least for the ones who’ve already been convicted and served jail time) she has no idea where to turn but hopes that Fontayne will help her, although her slowly-reemerging-old-friend is initially skeptical that she even wants to be part of all this, as well as feeling put upon by Bernice to get involved as the jailer-convict-power-dynamic is reemerging also.
Given that this film has the least exposure so far of the 3 under consideration this week, I’d better put out the Spoiler Alert now because anything I say beyond the basic premise recounted above might be more than you want to know at this point, especially if you have no idea yet whether the premise of Go for Sisters might be appealing for you to see on your own. If you’re going to skip to the bottom paragraph I’ll try to keep it vague enough not to interfere with your possible future-viewing-pleasure. Now, back to work. While Hamilton is the more known entity to me, mostly for TV work such as lawyer Rebecca Washington in The Practice and Melissa, wife of beleaguered son-of-the-owner-car-dealership-salesman, Owen Thoreau Jr. (Andre Braugher), in Men of a Certain Age, I’ve got to admit that I was equally impressed—if not more so—by Ross, whom I’m not aware of having seen before at all (except I must have, in Antwone Fisher [Denzel Washington’s 2002 directorial debut], but not with any clear memory of such). In Go for Sisters she’s appropriately reserved when she first encounters Bernice again; suspicious of anyone with authority over her continued freedom from prison; a bit angry that their friendship drifted apart all those years ago (especially when they finally start talking about it and realize that mutual interest in a guy played into the connection erosion); very uncomfortable that Bernice’s determination to locate her son (possibly before extreme harm comes to him, a fear exacerbated by small body parts being sent out by his kidnappers) is forcing her into situations that could easily lead to a return to prison (notwithstanding testimony on her behalf from parole officer Bernice) or even worse consequences when the 2 women begin to see what sort of ruthless gang families they’re up against south of the border; but finally helpful and supportive when she begins to trust that she’s not just being used for her partner’s benefit, that the young man is in serious trouble requiring Bernice to make every effort possible to find some clues that might begin to lead them to her re-found-friend's missing offspring. Fontayne’s a more naturally-tough-customer than Bernice, in that the latter learned her sternness in a system where she was in a position to make threats to obtain compliance, backed up by an entire legal system that could come down heavily on anyone who disobeyed her orders, whereas Fontayne was hardened in a subset of Bernice’s system—the true school of hard knocks—where she had only herself to back up whatever actions were required to keep some control of her life and not be dragged further down into a revolving door of crime and incarceration. Those attributes come in handy when the women follow what leads they have into Tijuana (described by their new accomplice, ex-cop Freddy Suarez [Edward James Olmos], as a “theme park of bad behavior”). Once in a situation where even the local law doesn’t have much control over its more enterprising citizens these intrepid investigators need all of the courage and creativity they can muster to find Rodney, then liberate him while still escaping with their own lives.
Like Hamilton, Olmos is another welcome return presence for me, in that I’ve seen him periodically in various media roles but not nearly enough since his active involvement in a lot of stories that I was more familiar with in the 1980s-‘90s (on TV, predominantly as no-nonsense Lt. Martin Castillo in Miami Vice—although I connected with him again in 2002 with the more interpersonal, character-driven PBS American Family series—while on the bigger screen I was constantly impressed by what he brought to supporting roles in Blade Runner [Ridley Scott, 1982] and Selena [Gregory Nava, 1997], the ensemble cast of My Family [Nava, 1995], and his lead work in Zoot Suit [Luis Valdez, 1981], Stand and Deliver [Ramón Menéndez, 1988], and American Me [which he also directed, 1992]). In Go for Sisters, his Freddy Suarez is no longer on the San Diego police force because he didn’t rat on a dirty partner so he was caught up in a sting by the Feds, but that hasn’t fully diminished his contacts on either side of the Mexican border (including the small role of Tijuana bartender Jorge Moncal, played by Hector Elizondo, another favorite face that I don't see often enough except when he pops up as Carlos Torres, father of Dr. Callie Torres [Sara Ramirez] on TV's Grey's Anatomy), so with the cynical demand of adequate payment he’s soon knee-deep (an identification sometimes used as the alternative for Ball High, as we used to call my beloved secondary school in good ol’ Galveston, TX) in dangerous waters as he helps connect Bernice and Fontayne to another associate of Rodney’s, now in deep cover of his own to avoid further brutality from the Chinese gang operating in Mexico who took offense at some actions by the minor-leaguers and their controllers connected with Rodney. It’s soon clear that the Chinese thugs are the ones who have him, essentially to gain payback from Rodney’s higher-ups for the bad blood between these 2 gangs. While death awaits around every corner, some further detective work leads our worn-down protagonists to a truckful of illegals that the Chinese are attempting to simply drive over the border in one of their frequent relocation moves. After a fitful chase—aided at times by a wildly-inconsistent tracking device—our desperate 3 find the truck abandoned in the wilderness (not sure why, but by that point it didn’t make too much difference) where our “detectives” find none of their antagonists, just a large crowd of Asian nomads ecstatic to get out of the locked truck and a badly-wounded Rodney who probably had been left there to die with the others from heatstroke, a likely outcome had that locked vehicle remained in its isolated desert location for very long. Once back home, Bernice and Fontayne retain their new-found friendship, with both of them more appreciative of their mutual resolve and integrity as dependable comrades.
OK, it's safe to read again. Like most of Sayles’ work, Go for Sisters may have a plot of serious incidents for the characters to navigate but the real interest is in the character development and exposition, so this film is typical in building slowly in intensity, complexity, and impact. By the time our 3 intrepid investigators are making their way toward what they hope to be their desperately-sought-after-goal we’re very aware of what’s on the line for all of them, how important and life-saving their successful resolution of the quest would be, and how much we admire their cunning and perseverance, even as the letter of the law is constantly smudged on torn paper that would be poor evidence indeed for any attempts at employee-of-the-month-honors for any of them. (Now, was that generic enough to not cause spoiler problems?) Still, they do what they have to do, even against the pressures from forces much bigger than themselves to simply go back north and forget everything they think they know about what goes on in TJ, as it’s called by those in the know. While I’m even more attracted to other Sayles’ films such as with his writer-director work on Eight Men Out (1988)—probably because that’s about when I started becoming a rabid baseball fan (let me better focus that, a rabid Oakland Athletics “Green Collar Baseball” fan; I could care less about those better-funded guys in San Francisco and Boston, even if they have been more successful lately in the post-season)—and Lone Star (1996)—with it’s fascinating multi-generational storyline and rapprochement between Anglo and Chicano heritages (given that I’m from Texas and feel every ounce of the impact of the defining final line: “Forget the Alamo!”), I still find Go for Girls to be a very compelling, engaging experience that I recommend quite highly as it becomes more readily available across the country in coming weeks. Finally, to cap off this commentary on Sayles’ latest creation I’m going for musical-metaphor-bookends by turning once again to Simon and Garfunkel (not for their 1968 Bookends album, but if you’re interested in all 29:43 of that it’s available at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-DFaSljmfVc, although you may have to keep nudging the site to play it all the way through) by directing you to their song “El Condor Pasa (If I Could)” (from their final original duo album, 1970’s Bridge Over Troubled Water) at http://www. youtube.com/watch?v=T6i8HHrz2BI with further metaphorical black-and-white-photos attached, or if you prefer here’s an instrumental version of the original melody written in 1913 by Daniel Alomía Robles (based on traditional Peruvian folk tunes) with some added high-Andes imagery at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M_gSydN_BYM. Before you start haranguing me for misunderstood geography and cultural understandings, though, I realize that Peru is a completely separate entity from Mexico, but they’re both part of a vast Hispanic presence in the Americans while this song (with its indigenous melody, augmented by Simon’s lyrics) speaks to themes very appropriate to all of the main characters in Go for Sisters, all of whom would “rather be a hammer than a nail … rather be a forest than a street” because when “a man [or woman] gets tied up to the ground he [she] gives the earth it’s saddest sound,” a cry heard many times throughout this film especially by Bernice when it seemed that all hope was lost as bad leads, wrong turns, and material demands seemed to be slamming the door on her fervent desire to retrieve her son from his misery. I’d venture to say that viewing any of this week’s explored films would at least distract you from most of your less-threatening-daily-miseries as well, so that whether you need breath-taking beauty, a sobering scare, or a shot of redemption you’ll find something of value in these—and other worthy films—playing in a Landmark Theatre (or one with a similar focus on the diversity of independent cinema) near you. Go have a look for yourself before you get sucked away into the mainstream whirlpool of Peter Jackson’ latest episode of The Hobbit, which we’ll journey to next week along with wizards, dwarfs, and elves, oh my!
If you’d like to know more about The Great Beauty here are some suggested links:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zkm_h-SWTUM (not your usual trailer but instead 8:24 of shots from the film set to the music of “My Heart’s in the Highlands” by Else Torp and Christopher Bowers, part of The Great Beauty’s soundtrack; if you’d prefer something more conventional here’s one at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=shyf_4oUQR4)
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w38qeRrapvs (7:40 interview with director Paolo Sorrentino)
If you’d like to know more about The Last Days of Mars here are some suggested links:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=46h9v8TGdAU (first 5:32 of the film to give you a taste of its barren environment and constantly-serious attitude, despite the irony of Depression-era uplift song “Blue Skies Around the Corner” on the soundtrack)
http://www.metacritic.com/movie/the-last-days-on-mars (47%, but based on just 15 reviews as of 12/12/2013 so you might want to check this site again later)
If you’d like to know more about Go for Sisters here are some suggested links:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IYUHoYcZJWM (37:49 interview with director John Sayles about Go for Sisters, financing of independent films, and his directorial style)
http://www.metacritic.com/movie/go-for-sisters (58%, but based on just 19 reviews as of 12/12/2013 so you might want to check this site again later)
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P.S. Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker.